Five stories about Chuck Fairbanks that you've either never heard or would enjoy hearing again:
SACRIFICING FOR THE TEAM
Barry Switzer and Chuck Fairbanks both arrived in Norman in 1966 as part of Jim Mackenzie's new OU staff. Switzer had been a fellow assistant with Mackenzie at Arkansas, and Chuck Fairbanks had visited Fayetteville regularly as a Houston U. assistant coach observing Razorback practices.
When Mackenzie died of a heart attack in April 1967, offensive coordinator Homer Rice had just left to become head coach at the University of Cincinnati. OU president George Lynn Cross appointed the 34-year-old Fairbanks head coach over the more veteran Pat James, and when the '67 Sooners won the Big Eight title and then the Orange Bowl, OU's regents were on board making Fairbanks the permanent replacement for Mackenzie.
“Chuck and I were tied together at the hip,” Switzer said.
But the Fairbanks/Switzer tandem that led to the installation of the wishbone offense in 1970 almost didn't happen. Switzer says he wanted to coach defense under Mackenzie, because he thought it would be better for his career.
Mackenzie asked Switzer to coach offense for a year, then he could move to defense. Sure enough, Switzer coached defense in spring 1967. Then Mackenzie died. Fairbanks had been offensive coordinator, replacing Rice. When Fairbanks became head coach, he asked Switzer to become offensive coordinator.
“He says, ‘You've got to come back over to offense,'” Switzer said. “I did it for the team. I didn't think it was best professional move for me.”
Turned out all right.
When Chuck Fairbanks called Barry Switzer into his office in January 1973 and told him to shut the door, Switzer had no idea what was coming.
Fairbanks was leaving OU to become coach of the New England Patriots. And Switzer was just the second person to know, behind Fairbanks' wife.
“It shocked me to death,” Switzer said. “I fell out of the chair.”
Then Fairbanks told Switzer to come with him to New England. But Switzer's mind wasn't on the NFL. His mind already was racing.
“I'm thinking, maybe I got a chance to get this job,” Switzer said.
He did indeed. Regent Jack Santee was a Switzer supporter, made a case for Switzer to the other board members, and a few days later, Switzer succeeded Fairbanks.
Chuck Fairbanks was many things. But he was nothing if not serious.
“That's his personality,” Barry Switzer said of the former OU head coach who died Tuesday. “When you were one-on-one with Chuck, and he knew you, he was a lot of fun. But he was serious. People looked at him as quiet, guarded. Carried himself differently.”
Steve Owens, who won the 1969 Heisman Trophy playing for Fairbanks, tells the story of being driven to Tulsa by Fairbanks, probably in 1968, for a booster function. From Norman through Oklahoma City and onto the Turner Turnpike, Fairbanks stayed completely quiet.
“He didn't say a word to me until we got to Sapulpa,” Owens said. “With the radio off. That was just Chuck. He was a deep thinker. I just sat in the car. At that time, he smoked. Smoked and didn't say anything to me. I was scared to say anything to him.”
Raymond Hamilton walked down the hallway of Douglass High School as a senior 45 years ago and did a double take. Chuck Fairbanks was walking down the same hallway. A tall white man stood out in the all-black school just east of downtown Oklahoma City.
“Seems like just yesterday,” said Hamilton. “He paid a surprise visit. I thought I was a big shot. The head coach was coming to see me.”
Fairbanks is a forgotten figure in the integration story of OU football. While Prentice Gautt integrated the Sooners in 1957, out of that same Douglass High School, and Barry Switzer filled his roster with black players in the 1970s, Fairbanks played no small role in OU taking a leading role in integrating a major football power south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Leon Cross, who played at OU for Bud Wilkinson and was an assistant coach for Fairbanks, says Fairbanks played a major role in relieving some of the stress of integration.
“Some coaches had never coached black kids,” Cross said. “But Chuck was from Michigan. Even played with some black guys at Michigan State. Chuck was very good to have here at that time. He was familiar with black kids and some of their problems. He educated the rest of the staff.
“Of course, Barry Switzer, his background, raised with black people, appreciated them, too. But Jim Mackenzie (OU's head coach in 1966) had never been around black kids, either. (Defensive coordinator) Pat James was an old Bear Bryant guy. We were very fortunate to have Chuck. Not that we wouldn't have made it fine with Jim. But (having Fairbanks) was very educational for the other people on the staff.”
Hamilton went on to play for Fairbanks with the Sooners and the New England Patriots. He was a nine-year NFL veteran and is in his 27th season as an NFL assistant coach. Hamilton is the Atlanta Falcons' defensive line coach.
Fairbanks, Hamilton said, “was the closest thing guys could come and talk to like a big brother or a father. Always tried to help players. Very sensitive to players' needs and wants.”
Chuck Fairbanks had a nose for football talent. When Fairbanks took the New England Patriots' coaching job in 1973, he left Barry Switzer one of the best rosters in college football history. Three Selmon brothers. Joe Washington. Rod Shoate. Randy Hughes. Tinker Owens. Three offensive linemen who would make All-American in either '73 or '74 (Kyle Davis, John Roush, Eddie Foster).
But Fairbanks' nose for talent extended to the NFL. Running the Patriots' personnel, Fairbanks quickly stocked a moribund franchise. Highlights of his New England drafts:
* 1973: John Hannah, considered perhaps the greatest offensive lineman in NFL history; stalwart fullback Sam Cunningham; and talented flanker Darryl Stingley, whose career would be cut short by paralysis from an infamous hit; and Raymond Hamilton, who spent nine seasons in the NFL.
* 1974: linebacker Steve Nelson, a second-rounder who became a Patriot icon, playing 14 seasons.
* 1975: Tight end Russ Francis, who had 40 career touchdown catches, and quarterback Steve Grogan (in the fifth round), who played 16 years for the Patriots and was 75-60 as a starter.
* 1976: Hall of Fame defensive back Mike Haynes and DB Tim Fox, who played 11 NFL seasons and had 26 career interceptions.
* 1977: Defensive back Raymond Clayborn, who played 15 NFL seasons and had 36 interceptions; and receiver Stanley Morgan, who played 14 years and had 557 career catches.
* 1978: Special teams star Mosi Tatupu, who was drafted in the eighth round but played 14 seasons with New England.
“Always had a real good eye for talent,” Hamilton said. “He came to the pros, he did the same thing.”
Fairbanks was 46-39 in six New England seasons, made the playoffs twice and in 1978 led the Patriots to their first division title since 1963. But Fairbanks was suspended for the final game of the regular season after Patriots president Billy Sullivan discovered Fairbanks had been negotiating with the University of Colorado. Fairbanks was reinstated for the playoffs, but New England lost to Houston 31-14.